Friday 17 December 2010

What's the one word that defines this government?

Let's try a little thought experiment, a kind of verbal Rorschach test.

What's the first word that comes to mind if you think about this government?

Chancellor George Osborne rather hopes it is: Integrity

Did you get it right?


Perhaps that just shows how the New Politics has become rather polarising.

Even as Captain Ska's Liar, Liar is promoted as the protest song of choice for the Christmas pop charts, a tribute to the Coalition's broken promises, George Osborne makes the counter-argument for the defence in the new issue of Prospect (£), critiquing himself and the Tory party for opportunism and dishonesty in voting against tuition fees in the Commons in 2004, happily seeing in the sackcloth and ashes a timely opportunity to attack the Labour opposition now. (Though the argument for policy continuity is misleading, given the scale of the withdrawal of government funding).

Gideon turns what he calls this "particularly dismal moment" into a moving parable. For, Lo, from that moment on, the Tory modernisers realised that there would be no future in political opportunism, and so they pledged to always, in future, do what was right.

"A group of new Conservative MPs, including David Cameron and myself, came to learn an important lesson from this. We decided that the most precious political commodity is intellectual integrity", he writes.

To see "intellectual integrity" as the watchword of the Cameron-Osborne opposition years might be called an audacious revisionist take on our recent political history.

Was this the same Tory opposition which supported Labour's spending plans until 2008, and then lambasted the government for over-spending, before pledging (on the Sunday before the election) to cut the deficit without needing any cuts to frontline services?

Or which campaigned to "stop Brown's NHS cuts", even as it argued that the "big state" was the primary cause of inequality and poverty?

Or, to take one of dozens of trivial examples, which proposed both fixed terms Parliaments - and a fresh election if there was a change of Prime Minister?

Progressive Conservatism always faced the charge that it was an exercise in paradox and oxymoron, as Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson has pointed out.

I checked the Oxford English Dictionary to get a definition for both words. It defined progressive as "favouring change and innovation". For conservative, it said, "averse to change or innovation".

Presumably the point of the Cameron-Osborne project is meant to be to show that this is not the case, rather than to go to extravagant lengths to prove it, particularly since it turns out that intellectual integrity is the central motivation for the project.


The Osborne intellectual integrity test in power

But perhaps Cameron and Osborne can do better now that they have escaped the pressures of opposition.

The easiest point to make about the government's integrity is that it has been a serial breaker of election promises, something which is going to make it very difficult for all politicians on the campaign trail next time if the evidence of their behaviour in power is that clear pledges and firm commitments have little or no weight at all in office.

Ed Miliband was effective in Wednesday's PMQs - his best performance since his PMQs debut (according to The Spectator's Lloyd Evans - in a crucial political argument linking Cameron (and not just Clegg) to the broken promises of the Coalition.

Osborne's claim to "intellectual integrity" and coherence of the government's agenda is to set the bar higher still. And it is difficult to see that the government meets that test in the Chancellor's key areas of responsibility.

The selective attack on universalism

Take Osborne's argument for the means-testing of child benefit.

“It’s very difficult to justify taxing people on low income to pay for the child benefit of those earning so much more than them.

If that argument is valid, it would clearly apply equally to the state pension, and indeed to providing services to all from a taxpayer funded NHS.

Yet Osborne is cutting universal benefits for families with children - but keeping them for pensioners. Can anybody identify an intellectual rather than electoral rationale for that?

So Osborne's underlying argument has support from those who want to end universal benefits generally, and is opposed to those who do not want a residualised safety-net system, as Tim Horton has argued, drawing on the detailed evidence base set out in the Solidarity Society book published by the Fabian Society and Webb Memorial Trust. (The argument is actually a rather weak one: higher rate recipients of child benefit are net contributors to the tax system, though this distributes across the life cycle and to families with children. As Paul Goodman has pointed out on ConservativeHome, child benefit incorporated the earlier family tax allowances, intended to recognise the costs of children to all famiilies, so Osborne's argument is rather weaker in the area where he has applied).

But what is the intellectual case for keeping the free bus pass and the winter fuel allowance while cutting child benefit for top-rate taxpayers?

Aiming to reduce inequality by making the tax system less progressive

A second area of significant intellectual confusion for Osborne and the government is income inequality. This blog was cheered by Osborne's clear campaign statement that he thinks it is the responsibility of government to narrow the gap between rich and poor, but worried about whether he had the means to do so.

At the same time, Osborne now endorses Nick Clegg's view that income inequality measures are arbitrary, and not relevant to the ambition of equalising life chances and increasing social mobility.

As a result, this government has endorsed a target of reducing income inequality, in accepting the child poverty targets, but its discretionary policy choices are increasing child poverty, as the Institute of Fiscal Studies reported yesterday.

This was predictable. Indeed it was very accurately predicted by Richard Reeves, now Nick Clegg's chief political adviser, when he was director of Demos, writing [of David Cameron making a similar argument] that:

[Cameron] is signing himself up to Labour-style poverty and inequality measures, even as he rejects Labour-style redistribution. In other words, he is setting his own big trap, and trotting gamely towards it ... it makes literally no sense to argue that inequality needs to be reduced and then to call for a reduction in state benefits. The issue is not ideology; its not politics; its just arithmetic ...

One can have intellectual integrity in rejecting this IFS finding as irrelevant, because one does not believe in a relative measure of poverty, as Policy Exchange and The Spectator are arguing, or once can argue for different policies, because relative poverty does matter, which is the argument made by the Child Poverty Action Group, the Fabians and other civic anti-poverty groups.

The government is somewhere in between, managing to argue that it does believe in reducing relative poverty, while criticising measures of it as arbitrary and irrelevant, and having policies which increase it.

That Osborne is a long-standing advocate of flatter taxes captures the intellectual incoherence which underpins his conflicting positions. He told the Spectator this week that the 50p rate is temporary, but the VAT rise is permanent, continuing a long-standing Tory strategy to remove progressiveness from the tax system. David Cameron has said he is "a Lawsonian basically" on flatter taxes.

So intellectual integrity means that advocates of flatter taxes should endorse the greater income inequality which results as fair in increasing the rewards to effort and dynamism. ('Let our children grow tall' as Margaret Thatcher argued, in rejecting equality as a 'mirage').

Or one can favour reducing income inequality, such as reducing child poverty, and so rejects flattening the progressive elements out of the tax system.

Whatever the positioning benefits in appealing to different audiences in being in favour of flatter taxes and reducing inequality, there isn't much intellectual integrity in that, George.


The defence from the right of George Osborne would be that his thinking has more intellectual coherence than he can admit, because it is driven primarily by an ideological smaller state argument which dare not speak its name.

If any minister articulated Michael Gove's underlying beliefs in a privatised higher education system they would harm the prospects of a policy which delivers precisely that, as long as a different and more pragmatic case is made for it.

The government can win the argument on spending cuts if people believe that they are an unavoidable necessity; they are losing the argument when the speed and scale of cuts is seen as a matter of discretionary choice. The principled case for less government spending is very unpopular - but those who believe in it might get a long way towards their goal under the banner of unavoidable necessity.

How can we resolve the issue of whether the government's measures are pragmatic (as they say in public) or more ideological (as their friends hope)?

A key test is which measures are temporary or permanent. Where the government has had to break a pre-election pledge, alleging regrettable necessity, will it time limit the changes - and make restoring these pledges its highest priority as resources allow?

Refusing to do that would prove the election promises were not made honestly or sincerely - but they may also reveal that the contradictions in George Osborne's public politics are only skin deep.

If this government will now struggle to stake a claim for political integrity, Next Left may have to concede that the Osborne agenda has a fair amount of intellectual coherence after all.

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